Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 17 October 2003

Free to foment trouble?


By Gamal Nkrumah, Al-Ahram Weekly

16 - 22 October 2003, Issue No. 660

The leading proponent of militant Islam in Sudan, Dr Hassan Al-Turabi, was released after a two-year detention. Gamal Nkrumah reviews the probable repercussions

CAIRO, Oct. 16, 2003 — Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir ordered the release of the country’s chief militant Islamist ideologue, Hassan Al- Turabi, on Monday. Al-Beshir also freed all Sudanese political detainees and lifted a ban on the political activities of Al-Turabi’s Popular National Congress (PNC).

Upon his release, Al-Turabi promptly denounced the government, accusing it of "emptying the state’s coffers". Regarded by his critics as a dangerous Islamist firebrand, Al-Turabi himself has in recent years sought to moderate his hard-line image and present himself as a champion of liberal values. "I will continue working for the same principles for which I was arrested: democracy, freedom of expression and human rights," he told reporters in Khartoum.

Al-Turabi’s critics note that he was among the most flagrant violators of human rights when he was in power in the 1990s.

The PNC broke away from Sudan’s ruling National Congress in 1999 after a fallout between Al- Beshir and his one-time political ally Al-Turabi, former speaker of the Sudanese Parliament.

A power struggle between the two men ensued and Al-Turabi was summarily dismissed from his post as speaker. Both the PNC and the ruling NC are offshoots of the now defunct National Islamic Front (NIF) which dominated Sudanese politics in the 1990s.

The relationship between the two men deteriorated further in 2001 when Al-Turabi’s party signed a memorandum for peace and understanding in Switzerland with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the country’s largest armed opposition group.

Even after the imprisonment of Al-Turabi, his party refused to join the Sudanese umbrella opposition organisation, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), headquartered in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.

"This is a significant move that will undoubtedly have far-reaching repercussions on the Sudanese political scene," Farouk Abu Eissa, the head of the Cairo-based Arab Lawyers Union and official spokesman for the NDA told Al- Ahram Weekly. Abu Eissa said that Al-Turabi’s release will unleash new forces that have long been silenced and will give some semblance of democracy to the "beleaguered Sudanese regime".

Abu Eissa noted that the Sudanese government is under intense pressure to liberalise and democratise the political system and institute full constitutional and human rights. "The [Sudanese] government’s excuse for arresting Al- Turabi in the first place was to punish him for making peaceful overtures to the SPLA. Today, the government itself is engaging in peace negotiations with the SPLA and therefore the rationale behind Al-Turabi’s arrest is no longer valid."

Abu Eissa said that Al-Turabi is now "speaking our language — the language of the left". He said that even though Al-Turabi has watered down his tone, many Sudanese bitterly remember the atrocities he committed, including torture, arbitrary arrests and a sharp crackdown on trade unions and professional associations. "Still, his release is commendable in spite of his terrible past," Abu Eissa added

The cessation of hostilities between the Sudanese government and the SPLA was signed last October in Kenya and renewed in February 2003. The Sudanese government and the SPLA are currently trying to finalise an agreement to end the Sudanese civil war — Africa’s longest- running conflict, which has cost the lives of more than two million people. The fighting which erupted in 1983 has also led to the displacement of an estimated five million Sudanese, half of whom have fled abroad. Most of the internally displaced refugees are southern Sudanese living in sprawling shanty towns on the outskirts of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Many of Al-Turabi’s critics, especially southerners, fear that Al- Turabi’s release will strengthen the hard-line Islamist constituency in Sudan. They warn that Al-Turabi was the chief architect of the radical Islamisation and Arabisation campaigns that were aimed at politically marginalising the southern Sudanese. Critics allege his NIF was instrumental in arming pro- Sudanese government tribal militias in western and southern parts of the country who raided defenseless villagers, leaving bloodshed and destruction in their wake. Furthermore, they argue that Al- Turabi incited violence against southern Sudanese and non- Muslims in rabble-rousing speeches. "Does a leopard change its spots?" asked a Cairo-based southern Sudanese refugee who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity.

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